By: Glynis Neely
The horror anthology XX features four shorts starring, written and directed by women. While the shorts themselves are not directly related, there is a focus on mothers and women. They are connected by a creepy stop motion interlude reminiscent of a Nine Inch Nails music video meets Sid’s toys from Toy Story. It is unsettling and I find myself more bothered by it each time it’s onscreen. The intention of the interlude does not become clear by films end. The shorts themselves are all accomplished in their own way, but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of theme that connects them all.
The first entry “The Box” was written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic and follows the story of Susan (Natalie Brown), her husband Robert (Johnathan Watton), and their two kids. After encountering a strange man on the subway, the son looks inside the box he’s carrying and then becomes immediately distant and vacant. He claims night after night that he is not hungry, but his cold and distant mother does not seem too concerned. Robert is concerned and convinces Susan to take him to the doctor, though nothing is physically wrong. He continues to sit at dinner every night without touching his food, eventually not sitting at the table at all. This refusal to eat passes on to her daughter, then her husband until they have all withered away from starvation and Susan is the only one left alive.
There are interesting themes and images within this story. The mother is the apathetic half of the marriage where the father is deeply in touch with his emotions. There is one gruesome moment of the children at the table while the father cuts off slices of their mother as she lies on the table and serves it to the children who proceed to eat her while she’s still alive. It turns out to be a dream, but the image lingers long after the story is over; the family starved for her attention. Susan doesn’t show her children love until she loses them all does she realize that she is the one who is starved – for affection, for comfort – and would give anything just to have her family back.
We continue down the road of unhealthy mothers with “The Birthday Party,” co-written with Roxanne Benjamin, directed and scored by Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent). We open with Mary (Melanie Lynskey) as she anxiously prepares the house the morning of her daughter’s 6th birthday until everything is perfect. While her nanny Carla (Shelia Vand, of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) watches over her daughter, Mary stumbles upon her husband in his study, dead from an overdose.
Instead of calling anyone, she attempts to hide his body. Her determination to keep everything under wraps backfires in the most disturbing and hilarious way possible, and she ultimately scars her daughter for life. Of the shorts this one is the most darkly humorous. I was impressed by Clark’s vision considering this is her one and only writing and directing credit, though I was not surprised her score was very accomplished. I would be interested in seeing what else she comes up with in the future if she decides to continue directing.
The third short “Don’t Fall” is written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin. This short felt like the most traditional horror story with plenty of great jump scares in a short amount of time. After taking an off-the beaten-path detour on a glamping road trip, a group of friends stumbles upon a strange drawing on the side of a rock overlooking a cliff. The first night Gretchen (Breeda Wool) goes off in the woods alone and returns not quite herself. No longer human, and possessed by something evil, she proceeds to pick off her friends one by one until there’s no one left. The FX for the creature is impressive and truly scary, especially for such a low budget film, and the short is the most succinct.
The final short, “Her Only Living Son,” was written and directed by Karyn Kusama, previously known for Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation. Leading up to her son Andy’s (Kyle Allen) 18th birthday, his mother Cora (Christina Kirk) begins noticing changes in his behavior. He starts acting out and yet the people around him seem to be encouraging his negative behavior. The tension reaches its climax when his birthday finally arrives and he starts to physically change. Despite an agreement made when he was born, Cora refuses to stop fighting for her son until the very end. I immediately felt definitive shades of The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. I expected her work to stand out, but her story seemed the most familiar and predictable.
There was a lot of hype for this movie and in some ways, it made some interesting choices and brought up some captivating topics of conversation. However the whole film does not quite live up to my expectations. I wanted a thesis for the entire anthology, but got loosely connected stories and very strange transition visuals. Ultimately, I am glad that I got to see it because I love supporting female-led projects. I look forward to seeing how their careers progress as they improve on their promising start.